Yours truly, Trevor Corson,
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This is where I post my irregular ramblings, reports, and pictures as the author of THE SECRET LIFE OF LOBSTERS. As I add to my Lobster Blog, you will find miscellaneous musings on lobsters and lobstering along with dispatches from my ongoing book tour. To see more scenes from Little Cranberry Island and to read an interview with me, click here. To see photos of some of the people featured in the book, click here, and view the blog entries below. To see more pictures of weird lobster stuff, click here.

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Wednesday, June 21, 2006  

How to Kill a Lobster, Redux

The CrustaStun, continuous flow
In my article in Boston magazine on the "lobster war" -- about the ways that animal-rights activists and Whole Foods executives are putting live lobster on trial -- I describe how lobster processing, distribution, and retail sale will be revolutionized by technology.

To recap: in the name of treating lobsters humanely, Whole Foods has discontinued the sale of live lobsters. Instead, the gourmet food chain will sell processed lobster meat. That, of course, begs the question: what technology will be used to kill and process these lobsters behind the scenes? Will it be humane?

Here are the new death machines.

First, the CrustaStun.

It was designed and built in the UK in response to tightening animal-welfare laws intended to protect crustaceans from torture.

It zaps the lobsters with a jolt of electricity, rendering their nervous systems dysfunctional prior to cooking.

There is a "continuous flow" model, with a conveyor belt, to be used for industrial applications. There is also a small, individualized lobster killer for zapping one animal at a time. Got space on your kitchen counter, between the blender and coffee maker?

The CrustaStun has already received some press in a few newspapers and on a few websites. As gruesome as it sounds, the CrustaStun has received a humane stamp of approval.

But the lobsters processed for Whole Foods will not have the luxury of electrocution.

In fact, no one seems to have noticed the much bigger machine that has already started revolutionizing lobster processing -- the Avure HPP. Yet it is this extraordinary piece of technology that will be used to provide lobster meat for Whole Foods.

The Avure 687L. Too big for your kitchen.
These enormous devices, built by Avure Technologies, are called hydrostatic pressure processing (HPP) systems. They come in several models. The entrepreneur mentioned in my article, John Hathaway of Shucks Maine Lobster, is the proud owner of the Avure 215L -- which weighs 80,000 pounds and is 16 feet tall.

The HPP technology was initially developed by the U.S. Army to make better-tasting MREs ("meals ready to eat") for the troops. The science of it is relatively simple. If a piece of food is immersed in water, and the water is then squeezed to high enough pressure, pathogens and bacteria will be neutralized, but the food will be otherwise unaffected.

You press the start button on an Avure machine. Powerful pumps whir, and inside a narrow tube in the center of the machine, the water pressure is compressed to several times the pressure found in the deepest trenches in the ocean. The microscopic bugs in your meal all die, giving the food extended shelf life, and reducing the need for artificial preservatives.

These machines have been in use for a while already. If you've ever eaten Avoclasic guacamole or Hormel Natural Choice deli meats, you've eaten HPP food. HPP machines turn out to be handy for shucking shellfish, too -- the pressure causes the meat to separate from the shell.

The lobsters go in here.
What's new is using these machines to process live lobsters. The animals are locked inside the tube, alive, and the pumps whir and the water pressure is compressed around the lobsters to three times the deepest trenches in the ocean. The lobsters die, of course -- just think what the pressure on your ears is like when you dive a few feet underwater.

At the same time, all the muscle flesh inside the lobsters conveniently separates from the shell. For the first time in human history, people have finally devised way to extract the meat of a lobster without cooking it.

And that's what this Whole Foods thing is about. As I write in the Boston magazine article:
In 2005, the Maine Lobster Promotional Council commissioned a survey on people's attitudes toward lobster. Only 15 percent of Americans, mostly in the Northeast, qualified as 'traditionalists' who wanted their lobsters alive. An equally small number, just 13 percent, objected to the retail sale of live lobsters for reasons of cruelty. For Whole Foods, the smart business decision is to target the silent majority -- the 50 percent or so of Americans who would love to buy fresh lobster if only it were easier to prepare.
For Whole Foods, switching to processed, packaged lobster meat will earn them far more money than live lobsters ever did. At the same time, they are presenting it as an ethical choice, which will earn them maximim moral points.

In the meantime, it is this 40-ton U.S.-military-derived crushing machine the company will be relying on, in the name of treating lobsters humanely. To replace its live lobsters, Whole Foods has signed a deal with Clearwater Seafoods of Canada to sell shucked raw frozen lobster, processed using an Avure 687L (pictured above).

According to Avure, the water inside the machine can take from 30 to 45 seconds to reach maximum pressure, and it's unclear how long the animals endure inside -- while they undergo pressurization -- before they die. A spokesperson for Whole Foods told me this:
Whole Foods Market is currently working with a team that specializes in the physiological and welfare aspects of humane slaughter to have this machine evaluated and certified. Pilot studies with this machine suggest that the lobster is killed within seconds (rather than up to several minutes when using the traditional boiling-water cooking method). It is important to us that we ensure this is the case in order to remain consistent with our requirements for humane slaughter that we have established for all of the other species we sell.
It will be interesting to see if "seconds" turns out to be 30 seconds or three seconds. If it's more like 30 seconds, then I suspect that the only way to guarantee that lobsters are killed in a humane fashion for HPP processing would be to use both machines -- run the animals through the CrustaStun first, then load them into the Avure HPP.

When the lobsters come out of the Avure machine after a minute or two, the result is arresting. Every piece of meat can easily be extracted from the shell, raw and fully intact, including the leg muscles. After shucking, here is what the lobster looks like:

As a friend of mine put it: It's a crustacean without the crust.

The company in Maine I referred to above, Shucks Maine Lobster, even advertises the rather extraordinary possibility of eating "lobster spaghetti" -- which is to say, a heap of lobster leg flesh. Photo below.

My method of killing lobsters with a kitchen knife suddenly seems rather quaint, doesn't it?

Welcome to the future.

Comments? E-mail me.

Comments (1)

- I'm a keen lobster hunter in Florida, and I'm afraid I just grip the lobster firmly in one hand, while twisting the tail off with another. I usually do this at the dock, the minute I get off the boat. (I feel marginally guilty about then reaming the tail with a piece of antenna to remove the vein, but I've gotten over the involuntary twitching). One time after a dive, an interested novice diver was watching the operation, and asked "Does it hurt?" I replied, "Not me!" In any case, I lose patience very quickly with all this "humane killing" mularky. All you need to do is watch animals eat each other in the wild to see how it's supposed to be done!

Copyright © 2004 Trevor Corson. All Rights Reserved.